by Tzuri Hason –

The following article is a translation of the original Hebrew article written for Jeducation World. Jeducation World publishes articles written in a variety of languages. You can view these articles by clicking on the flag in our menu and changing the language of the website.

Every week, since the beginning of the year, I, and twenty-five Israelis from various backgrounds and regions, have been taking part in a Shaliach preparatory program at the Strauss-Amiel Institute in Kibbutz Migdal Oz, Gush Etzion. The program has been preparing us for a variety of roles that Jewish communities throughout the world need to be filled. The main focus of the program is directed towards roles in formal and informal education and rabbinics. Together, we have been studying a wide range of topics from halachic issues, marketing, body language, and multicultural communications. We have also been learning about the different cultures we can expect to come across during our work.

At one of our more recent sessions, a graduate of the program who had been working in the United States came to speak with us. Starting as a teacher in Texas, he ended up staying there for several more years after the school called him at the end of his two-year term to request him to stay on as the principle. During the session, he presented to us a number of issues and differences between the Israeli education system and the US education system. He placed special emphasis on the Jewish education, and what these differences mean.

Having lived in Michigan for two years myself, and being involved in the school systems informally as my wife worked at first Jewish high school then a middle school, much of what he spoke of was very familiar to me. However, one issue he addressed, of which I was not aware of, stood out in particular to me. He spoke about how important it is in American schools for students, and especially the parents, on how they will progress to the next grade. This focus on progressing to the next grade follows the children from first grade onward through university. The classes and grades now effect which university a student goes to, which in turn affects the job they will receive in the future. What stands out to me is that not only does each stage control the next, but that everything is recorded in a single file that follows the students and has a large impact on their entire future!

Our guest speaker had an interesting example to illustrate the impact this cultural attitude has. In Israel, the average Israeli comes out of the military to take time to themselves. They go abroad and see the world, and mature before they move on to their studies. However, in a system where everything you did in high school, and even before that, determines whether you will go to the university of your dreams, you don’t have the chance to mature and think about where your life is going to go. What has been will be.

This means that the things you do from the age of thirteen to seventeen determine whether you will be at a prestigious university with the brightest peers in America, or stuck at a community college among the “downtrodden” and “oppressed” of society. Those of us who hope to be a Shaliach at these kinds of schools need to be aware that this places a burden of stress on the students and parents. This stress can have positive effects in terms of discipline and motivation to succeed, or negative psychological effects such as depression, nervous breakdowns, and pressure on teachers to change grades. This is all the more so true when it comes to Jewish private schools, where the parents are paying a lot of money for their children’s education.

The idea that it is impossible to change and correct the errors of the past, that there is no concept of a second chance or teshuva, is foreign and alien to me, and I honestly cannot understand how they can live that way. The reason I struggle with this is that, as an Israeli and, in my opinion, even more so as a Jew, the concept of a second chance is ingrained deep within me due to the Jewish value of teshuva. According to Midrash, teshuva is so important that it even preceded the world! “Six things preceded the creation of the world… Rabbi Ahava in the name of Rabbi Zeira said: Even teshuva was, as it says ‘before the mountains were birthed.’”

The reality created in a life that contains the possibility to fix mistakes is much different from the one which that makes change nearly impossible. On the one hand, it makes sense that we get what we earned. After all, we grew up with the phrases, “Whoever cares about Shabbat eve, eats on Shabbat,” and “You sleep in the bed you make.” And of course, if you allow yourself to go to the beach instead of taking time to study, there will be consequences. However, in my opinion, what works well in theory does not always work well in reality and can have quite a few issues.

The reason I believe so strongly is that, in my eyes, teshuva allows for change and for perpetual progress. The following is an illustration regarding teshuva’s power in religious lives. While a rabbi who has made teshuva, and did not necessarily grow up religious, might not have as much Torah knowledge as a rabbi who has been religious his whole, he brings with him a different kind of knowledge and experience. These experiences can enable him to understand and approach diverse groups, approach community members differently, and solve problems in less conventional ways. So too, can a boy who grew up struggling in a tough neighborhood in Jerusalem can, at the age of 25, become a high-tech engineer and bring new ideas and abilities to coworkers who may have been learning high-tech since they were little. Those abilities can often inspire innovation and channel the actions and ‘mistakes’ of his past life into a good cause.

Of course, from the beginning, we are all geared in the direction of the American system, and it is understandable that this system can help maintain a healthy society. However, the fact is that looking back on our mistakes can help us develop and encourages diversity and innovation in different areas of society. The effect that this Israeli teshuva culture has can be seen by the large number of start-ups in Israel relative to its population and the constant innovation being seen by companies even within traditional industries. I’m not blind to the fact that there are other reasons Israel is succeeding in innovation, but I believe that teshuva in our education system has been one of our best values and is a major reason for Israeli success.

Do you believe there are other traditional Israeli values and attitudes that set us apart, increase educational effectiveness, and contribute to Israeli success? Leave a comment and let’s have a discussion.